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Europe's Data Protection Commissioners have voiced concern about EU proposals to mandate phone companies and ISPs to retain customer data, questioning the "legitimacy" and cost of the proposals.

At present, service providers only retain data for billing purposes, but that is set to change because of plans that ISPs retain data for up to two years, in the event of it becoming of interest in police or security service investigations into serious crime or terrorism.

This data would include catalogues of web sites visited, records of e-mail recipients, lists of telephone numbers dialled, and the geographical location of mobile phones at all times they were switched on. It doesn't include the contents of messages.

Privacy advocates such as the Foundation for Information Policy Research have questioned the need for such measures, warning of their impact on civil liberties.

These concerns were echoed in a meeting of Data Protection Commissioners in Cardiff last week, prompting the release of an unusually strongly worded statement on the issue.

The Commissioners expressed "grave doubt as to the legitimacy and legality of such broad measures". They are also worried about the "excessive costs" to telephone and Internet companies, and note the absence of any similar measures in the United States (a telling observation since the raison d'etre of the idea stems from post September 11 "terrorism investigation requirements").

The Commissioners repeated their previously expressed concerns that "such retention would be an improper invasion of the fundamental rights guaranteed to individuals" and further that "systematic retention of all kinds of traffic data for a period of one year or more would be clearly disproportionate."

The warning comes as the UK government is still attempting to implement the December 2001 Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act.

According to the FIPR, the voluntary data retention scheme outlined in Section 101 of the Act is now "widely seen to be impossible to implement" and the Home Office is known to be considering moving to compulsory measures.

Ian Brown, Director of FIPR, told us that the strongly worded concerns expressed by the Data Protection Commissioners showed it wasn't just privacy campaigners who were concerned about the measures. The FIPR believes that the costs of data retention will be passed on the customers via higher bills.

"We hope this gives the UK government pause for thought," he added, though he expressed no particular optimism about a favourable outcome. ®

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